Dalton Myers | Sexual abuse and sports
The now infamous case of convicted USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor Larry Nassar as well as the recent arrest and charge of a high-school coach in Jamaica for allegedly abducting and sexually assaulting a schoolgirl under his care have once again brought to the forefront one of the ugly sides of sport - violence against girls and women - that of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault.
The witness statements from victims of Nassar's decades of abuse have left us wondering how could someone who had sworn to protect and care for persons be so cruel to anyone, much less, minors under his care. Meanwhile, there have been murmurs in the Jamaican sporting circle, especially in track and field of such predators preying on high-schoolgirls. Vulnerable children who depend on coaches and managers for emotional, financial and psychological support are particularly at risk.
The Nassar case is not unique to USA Gymnastics. We should not naively think that in Jamaica we do not have such persons who we need to expose. The truth is that sport is still a male-dominated space. While there has been advancement for women and girls in many areas, the culture of hegemonic masculinity and male superiority in the space oftentimes makes it uncomfortable for girls and women to play and participate in sport. It sometimes perpetuates and facilitates a culture of abuse based on gender. Most high-school training for competitive sports takes place after school and in some cases, athletes depend on the male coaches and managers for a ride home, bus fare, and meals. In many cases, athletes see these persons as mentors and father figures, which creates a form of dependency, even greater that than of their own family.
In Jamaica, there are gaps to be filled in protecting our girls. The Centre for Investigation of Sexual Offences & Child Abuse is a branch of the Jamaica Constabulary Force which, among other things, has been working closely with schools and communities to provide an avenue through which anyone can report forms of sexual child abuse, but this is not always easy for victims of sexually based offences. However, much more is needed to protect girls in sport today.
On Tuesday, January 31, at the launch of the fourth staging of the Digicel Grand Prix, Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA) president Dr Warren Blake made strong comments on this subject. He said the athletics body will have zero tolerance for any forms of sexual abuse against children. He also noted that the JAAA will be conducting workshops and other programmes to sensitise student athletes about these issues. The Jamaica Cricket Association has also been conducting child protection courses for persons who are involved with or supervise children who participate in the sport.
There are three categories of support staff that we must target with our campaign: family and peers; sport organisation and team authority figures as well as the wider sporting community (clubs, churches etc.). These groups are crucial in preventing the abuse of girls in sport. I will go a step further and suggest that we find unique ways to prevent the abuse of girls by physical education teachers, medical and other team officials, as well as organisational staff. I would suggest:
• Mandatory child protection courses for all coaches at the high school level
• More seminars and workshops for high-school student athletes to educate them on sexual harassment, rape and assault, as well as ways of protecting themselves
• Greater focus on establishing and implementing ethical guidelines and codes of conduct for all individuals who will be in contact with these children
• Continuous education and training for support personnel
• Documented zero-tolerance approaches from sporting organisations on this issue.
Our children are our future. Let us not bury our heads in the sand and believe that we may not have our own versions of a Larry Nassar. Already, some females are afraid of training late, walking home from training, engaging in recreational sport, or just merely existing in sportswear.
We all have a role to play in protecting our children who want to, and should be able, to participate in sports without fear.
Dalton Myers is a sports consultant, administrator and lecturer. Email feedback to email@example.com.